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How to Be Good – The New York Times


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How to Be Good – The New York Times


Like Osiel, the philosopher Todd May is concerned with a moral gap. But while Osiel focuses on the gap between law and morality, May worries about the gap between our everyday moral lives and the demands of our best moral theories. In A DECENT LIFE: Morality for the Rest of Us (University of Chicago, $25), May argues that whichever moral theory we might favor — be it utilitarianism, Kantianism or virtue ethics — “we will find it difficult to live up to its requirements” because “all these theories ask more than most of us are capable of.” Unable to be a moral saint, but unwilling to accept moral mediocrity, May seeks a third way: an approach to living that acknowledges our moral limitations but still offers ethical guidance. He calls this ideal “decency.”

May’s book is a work of popular philosophy, and there is looseness at times. Though he gives an impression to the contrary, many philosophers share his worry that moral theories, however persuasive as abstract accounts of right and wrong, can fail as practical guides to decision making. Typically, these philosophers view this failure as evidence that a theory is incorrect or incomplete, and thus must be corrected or supplemented — not that the moral life, too lofty to be attained, is only to be contemplated by academics. In trying to make moral theory more “realistic,” they, unlike May, still take themselves to be doing traditional moral philosophy.

As it happens, many of May’s own insights are in this vein. When he frets about the philosopher Peter Singer’s extreme demand that we sacrifice our deepest personal commitments to help starving people on the other side of the planet, he purports to be showing us how hard it is to obey Singer’s theory. But the sharp arguments that May makes here — for example, that our duties to others should not undermine what makes our own lives worth living — seem to show something else: how unconvincing Singer’s theory is as an account of right and wrong. In these moments, May is still operating as a traditional moral theorist, his own protestations notwithstanding.

When it comes to understanding decency, May has two requirements. The first is that we start with a recognizable description of ourselves in our everyday moral lives. The second is that we locate there a moral attitude that, when obeyed more faithfully, leads us to better behavior, without upending “what is dear to us.” For May, one such attitude is simple acknowledgment of and respect for others: that we recognize that other people exist, that they are carrying on their own lives and that “we can do something to make that carrying on just a wee bit less complicated.” Whether this is decency, as opposed to morality, may depend on how much you think morality asks of us.

Holly M. Smith is one of those philosophers like May who are troubled when moral theories fail to help us make real-world decisions. In her book MAKING MORALITY WORK (Oxford University, $67), she characterizes as “austere” the view that a moral theory need not have concern for its usability. But her focus differs from May’s. He is interested in what Smith calls the problem of “motivational limitations”: our inability to muster the will to do what a moral theory instructs. Smith is more interested in the problem of our “cognitive limitations.” What if we grasp the principle of utilitarianism, for example, but because of ignorance or uncertainty about the predicament we find ourselves in, or because we simply aren’t smart enough, we can’t determine which of our actions would in fact promote the greatest good? If a moral theory cannot offer guidance in such all-too-human situations, is that the theory’s fault or ours?

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